The new Memory Murals of the Michael Klein Collection in B’nai Jehudah’s commons area depict various aspects of our history. None is more important than the contribution to the civil rights struggle made by B’nai Jehudah member Esther Swirk Brown. Her courageous efforts paved the way for desegregation of public schools in the 1950s.
Born in Kansas City in 1917 to Russian immigrants Ben and Jenny Swirk, Esther Brown grew up here in a working class neighborhood. Her dad was a watchmaker who later started Swirk Jewelers. Her mother died of cancer when Esther was ten years old. Ben was socially conscious and leaned left. Esther was influenced by her father and became involved in various social causes during her teen years. She picketed for workers’ rights in the cosmetics and garment industries.
Esther married Paul Brown, a Kansas City native and officer in the U.S. Army Air Forces. When World War II ended, they moved into a home in Merriam, Kansas with their two young daughters. Esther learned from her black housekeeper about the inferior conditions at the segregated Walker School in the nearby township of South Park.
Walker was built as a one-room school in 1888 to serve South Park. In 1912, a new school building opened for white children and black students continued attending classes in the original 1888 schoolhouse.
The small school district (District 90) opened another new building in 1947, for white children only. Black students were required to attend classes at the 1888 building (described as a “shack”) that had no indoor toilets, poor heating and two teachers for 44 students in eight grades. Black families were taxed for the new school building even though they were not allowed to enter it. They demanded that their children be enrolled at the new building but the school board would not consent. The Browns’ maid’s children were among those who were denied enrollment.
A 30-year-old mother of young children herself, Esther Brown visited Walker school and was angered by the injustice she saw. She began crusading in cooperation with members of the South Park black community. It was Esther’s idea to form a South Park chapter of the NAACP that joined the fight. Additional demands were made of the school board, to little avail.
Brown was invited by the District 90 school board president to a small meeting to make her case. When she arrived, the school gym was filled with a rowdy crowd of several hundred people. Some shouted obscenities and racial slurs. When Esther spoke, she was hooted and booed. A woman started to hit her with an umbrella but was restrained. After that meeting, Esther Brown was subjected to days of harassing phone calls and a cross was burned in the family’s front lawn.
Esther would not be intimidated. She worked with NAACP attorneys to file a case known as Webb v School District No. 90. At her urging, a more aggressive attorney replaced the first one. When school opened in fall 1948, the black students attempted to enroll in the white school building but were denied entry. Brown convinced all but two of the black parents to boycott Walker School and she helped organize a home-based school program as an alternative. She raised funds from friends, business people, Jewish organizations and others to pay the salaries of the two black teachers.
The case continued into 1949 at a personal toll to the Browns. Esther’s father-in-law called her a communist and fired her husband. The FBI tried to discredit her. Paul Brown was asked to resign his commission from the Air Force Reserve on account of her activism.
Finally, in June 1949, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in favor of the black plaintiffs. The school district was ordered to rebuild or make Walker School comparable to the white school, and implement a plan for black and white children to attend both buildings. Despite further tactics on the part of the school board, all children in the district, both black and white, began attending the South Park School together that fall.
For the first day of school, Esther Brown purchased a new dress for every girl and a new shirt for every boy who had previously attended the Walker School. She also worked to raise funds for books and school supplies for these students. Of the six plaintiffs in the Webb case, all graduated from high school and several graduated college.
Brown went on to work towards desegregation of other schools in Kansas. The result of one of these cases was the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling in Brown (Linda, not Esther) v Board of Education of Topeka that prohibited segregation in all US public schools.
In the ensuing years, Esther Brown continued her efforts to promote racial equality. She successfully lobbied to locate a new junior college in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, instead of the suburbs so black students would not be excluded. She helped organize the first Panel of American Women, a program that promoted dialog and understanding among women of diverse races and faiths. That program spread to 63 cities and involved more than 1,400 women.
Esther Brown died of cancer in 1970 at the age of 52. Her funeral was held in the B’nai Jehudah sanctuary at 69th and Holmes and she is interred at Rose Hill Cemetery. Brown Memorial Park at 5040 Booker Street in Merriam, Kansas is named after her. There is a historical marker there telling the story of this brave woman’s important role in the fight to desegregate schools in Kansas and across the nation.
Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler, z”l and
A Pioneer in Civil Rights by Milton S. Katz and Susan Brown Tucker, published by
The Kansas Historical Society in Kansas History Winter 1995/96. Ms. Tucker is Esther Brown’s daughter.
April 30, 2021
Photos: 1) Esther Brown, 2) Walker School, aka “a shack,” 3) Brown Park in Merriam, KS